ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Rocky Long essentially fired himself as New Mexico's football coach, saying he wants what's best for his alma mater.
Long surprised the university and the college football community Monday, announcing he is stepping down after 11 seasons to make way for someone who can lead the Lobos to a Mountain West championship.
"I want this program to be on top," the former Lobo quarterback said. "I wanted it be on top as a player. I wanted it be on top as an assistant coach. And I wanted it to be on top as the head coach.
"I don't see it happening with me as the head coach."
The most successful coach in New Mexico history, the straight-talking Long said he took a hard look at the success the Lobos have achieved during his term but concluded they can't compete for a conference title if he sticks around.
"I'm a realist," Long said.
During a crowded evening news conference, Long said he believes this year's team should have been much better and that the coaching staff — including himself — did a "terrible job."
"In 2005, we did a terrible job of coaching and this year we did a terrible job of coaching," he said. "Other than that, I think our staff, our players have been overachievers every other year."
Long's resignation is effective immediately. Athletic director Paul Krebs said the school has hired a national search firm to help find a new coach.
The 58-year-old Long compiled a 65-69 record and guided the Lobos to five bowl appearances in seven seasons since 2002. Last year, his team broke the school's 46-year skid without a bowl victory, beating Nevada 23-0 in the New Mexico Bowl.
Krebs said Long's decision was unexpected.
"It's a sad day for New Mexico football that Coach Long will no longer be our leader," Krebs said. "In my opinion, Rocky's 11-year tenure is the best 11 years in the history of our football program."
The Lobos wrapped up their 2008 season Saturday with a 20-6 loss at Colorado State. They finished 4-8 overall and 2-6 in the Mountain West, marking the most losses for UNM overall and in conference play since 1998.
That year, New Mexico was 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the final season of the Western Athletic Conference.
Long always emphasized to his teams that they couldn't give up. His players exhibited toughness and resilience and kept running hard, even into the fourth quarter when they were behind.
Fittingly, Long was reluctant to say he was quitting.
"I don't think I'm giving up," Long said. "I'm giving the program the chance the get better."
He said the players' talent, the support of the administration and the Lobos' training facilities are ideal but he determined over the last three or four weeks that he simply wasn't the right person to lead the team to the next level.
Even the money is right for a mid-major school like New Mexico. Before this season, Long signed a five-year contract that raised his base salary to $750,000 per year with incentives that could have boosted it to $1 million.
But for the Lobos to take the next step, winning a league title and perhaps making a run for the Bowl Championship Series, Long said New Mexico needs a flashier recruiter to keep up with conference powers Utah, BYU and TCU.
"I don't have the right image. I'm an old player that loves to coach," said Long, who was a three-year starter at quarterback for New Mexico from 1969-71. "I'm not trying to be on ESPN."
Long also blasted New Mexico's fan support.
He thanked "loyal fans" for their enduring support and fawned over Albuquerque's high quality of life. Then he became angry, saying casual fans need to get involved and show more passion for the Lobos.
"If you want to compete with the big boys, you've got to act like it," Long said.
Long wouldn't characterize his decision as a retirement, saying he hopes to coach again as a defensive coordinator. He worked in that capacity at UCLA and Oregon State before coming to New Mexico and is very highly regarded.
"It's a lot more fun being a coordinator. You're in charge but nobody knows it," Long said to laughter.